Subject: Jurors acquit man of hacking system at district
By ROSANNA RUIZ
Feb. 20, 2003
Jurors needed only about 15 minutes to acquit a Houston man who was
accused of hacking into the Harris County district clerk's wireless
computer system in March.
One juror, Helen Smith, 62, said she and the other jurors found that
Stefan Puffer indeed hacked into the system but they did not believe
he caused any damage as the government had alleged.
"We didn't feel he intentionally wanted to do damage, but just to
embarrass" the county, Smith said.
Puffer, 34, was charged in July on two counts of unauthorized access
into a protected computer system and unauthorized access of a computer
system used in justice administration. Prosecutors said the county
spent more than $5,000 to clean up the system after the break-in.
"Throughout the trial we proved -- at least it was clear -- the county
had their wireless butt out and they were trying to use Stefan as a
scapegoat," said Ed Chernoff, Puffer's attorney.
Puffer, who briefly worked for the county clerk's office in 1999,
declined to comment through his attorney.
Federal prosecutor Richard Berry referred questions to U.S. Attorney
Michael Shelby who said while he respected the jury's verdict, he
disagreed with their findings.
"The allegation is that this man intentionally invaded a cyberspace
that did not belong to him that is essential to function of a
government entity," Shelby said. "We should not allow that intrusion
in our homes, and we can't allow it to systems so critical to (daily)
At the start of the three-day trial in a Houston federal court, Berry
said Puffer hacked into the system three times in March, but he was
indicted for only one instance on March 8.
One breach occurred March 18, when Puffer showed clerk's office
officials and a Houston Chronicle reporter how he was able to break
into the system using his laptop, a computer program and a phone card.
Chernoff told jurors in his closing argument Thursday that the
publicity from the Chronicle article embarrassed Harris County
District Clerk Charles Bacarrisse. He said Bacarrisse pressured the
U.S. attorney's office to charge Puffer so he could escape blame when
he seeks re-election.
Both Shelby and Bacarrisse brushed aside the notion.
Bacarrisse said he was indeed embarrassed by the breach, and he simply
reported the incident to proper authorities.
"Yes, I was embarrassed by discovering in the early stages of testing
a wireless system we were not using the highest available level of
security," Bacarrisse said. "The next attempt at intrusion will
encounter a far higher level of security."
Berry dismissed Chernoff's "conspiracy" theory in his closing
argument. He described Puffer as a computer hacker who thought he was
more clever than clerk's office employees. But, Puffer was caught by
the footprints he left behind when he hacked into the system and by
his own words to FBI agents, Berry said.
An FBI agent testified that Puffer asked during questioning what
punishment he faced if he was found guilty. Berry interpreted the
question as an admission of guilt.
Puffer faced up to five years in a federal prison per count.
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